Former SARS spokesperson Adrian Lackay was sitting alongside Pravin Gordhan in a boardroom last Thursday night when he received an SMS from his lawyers, informing him that civil legal action against him had been withdrawn.
The two were on a conference call, so they enjoyed a muted celebration, with the minister of public enterprises throwing his long-time aide a thumbs up.
Both the South African Revenue Service (SARS) and suspended SARS commissioner Tom Moyane officially withdrew their legal action against Lackay last week, and also indicated that they would pay whatever legal costs had been incurred.
Lackay had been sued in 2015 for a combined claim of R12m in damages for alleged defamation. The claim stemmed from a submission he had made to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance and the joint Standing Committee on Intelligence. This was after he had resigned as spokesperson for SARS in March 2015.
Lackay was among a slew of top executives who left the organisation following the so-called "rogue unit" narrative being perpetuated in the media. Together with Johann van Loggerenberg, Ivan Pillay, Pete Richer and Yolisa Pikie, as well as Gordhan, the men have been working to rehabilitate their reputations that were tarnished by the campaign.
"It was very emotional," Lackay acknowledges, about receiving the news that the lawsuits had been dropped.
"It's just the relief that this thing doesn’t hang over your head like a shadow anymore. From the start, it was a tactic to intimidate, to be vindictive and to use the resources of the state to silence me and any other dissenting voice that would speak out against what [SARS commissioner] Tom Moyane and the SARS leadership were doing from 2014 onwards.
"They were destroying the names and reputations of good, hardworking public servants who built SARS into a formidable tax administration and really served the country, took pride in their work and stood firmly against corruption and state capture."
'You effectively become contaminated'
Since 2015, Lackay has found himself in the wilderness, struggling to find employment, despite being a celebrated communicator with a strong reputation among media colleagues. This was while simultaneously fighting costly legal action and raising two young children with his TV presenter wife.
"Back in 2015, after I resigned, it became almost impossible to get a job. I went for a number of discussions and interviews with banks and financial services companies.
"In the end, people would explain that because of the litigation against me, no one would want trouble with SARS in their backyards, so no one wanted to employ us. Big corporates that I went to and people who knew my work. The one bank in particular, their risk matrix turned me down after a full interview process.
"So you effectively become contaminated. But I believe I have not done anything wrong. Regardless of how well you are known, it just became impossible to get a job."
Lackay drew support from his ex-SARS colleagues who rallied around him and each other. He also learnt to cook, trained for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, and spent time with his young daughters.
"It was very, very stressful. If we didn’t have each other – Ivan, Johann, Yolisa, Pete – we would have completely lost focus, composure and determination to continue fighting our individual cases, to resist the onslaught from SARS and Moyane.
"I still proceeded with my CCMA matter. I went through that litigation and unfortunately I lost, but I was determined that I am not going to keep quiet.
"I’m not going to be a silent observer while this important institution is being decimated brick by brick, and the good work of excellent leaders that built SARS was going to be trampled upon," he says resolutely and fiercely.
'I landed back on my feet'
Lackay doesn’t believe the country owes him any kind of debt for what he has suffered and is quick to point out that his was a small contribution, and that others who have "suffered far more should be acknowledged".
"I landed back on my feet. I’m working with my old boss, I’m gainfully employed."
Lackay is currently the spokesperson for Gordhan.
"Ivan and Johann are being criminally prosecuted. They should be back at SARS rebuilding it. Yolisa was hounded out of SARS, he was dismissed. Yolisa lost his property, his flat that he stayed in. He is still facing charges. Pete Richer is a brilliant strategist. He’s been unemployed since 2015."
For Lackay, it is the end of a draining and difficult chapter in his life. However, he hopes that his daughters will, in the future, appreciate the lesson that, in the face of injustice, their voices must not lie silent.
"I'm hoping that when they’re older one day we can talk through some of the things that happened, and they must know that many people fought for this democracy. I was fortunate to work with some of them and they must always stand up and fight towards advancing justice, and the basic rights of people must be protected."